Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Flights of fancy

Orchids and hummingbirds are one of nature's most dazzling combinations.

I thought I'd share this wonderful photograph taken by JanS, a contributor to Orchidboard.com. It's a great site for orchid fans, by the way.

And why not find another excuse to feature one of my favourite paintings on the same theme?

Orchids and Spray Orchids with Hummingbird is an oil painting by Martin Johnson Heade, (1819 – 1904). He was a prolific American painter known for his salt marsh landscapes, seascapes, and depictions of tropical birds (such as hummingbirds) as well as lotus blossoms and other still lifes. His painting style and subject matter, inspired by romanticism of the time, are regarded by art historians as a significant departure from those of his peers.

Heade was born in Lumberville, Pennsylvania, the son of a storekeeper. His earliest works were produced during the 1840s and were chiefly portraits. He travelled to Europe several times as a young man, became an itinerant artist on American shores, and exhibited in Philadelphia in 1841 and New York in 1843. Friendships with artists of the Hudson River School led to an interest in landscape art. In 1863, he planned to publish a volume of Brazilian hummingbirds and tropical flowers, but the project was eventually abandoned. He travelled to the tropics several times thereafter, and continued to paint birds and flowers.

Heade was not a widely known artist during his lifetime, but his work attracted the notice of scholars, art historians, and collectors during the 1940s.

He quickly became recognised as a major American artist. Heade's works are now in major museums and collections. His paintings are occasionally discovered in unlikely places such as garage sales and flea markets.

Wikimedia has a delightful selection of his works.

Orchids and Spray Orchids with Hummingbird, about 1875-90, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Friday, 27 December 2013

Orchids in the past

If you’re interested in the history of orchids, there’s a fascinating academic paper on the subject, looking at the traditional medicinal uses of orchids in Europe.

In old treatises of medicine, doctors of antiquity deduced the pharmacological properties of plants, from observation of their shape, ‘similia similibus curantur, in comparison to the human anatomy and this well before Paracelsus (1493-1541) made the theory famous.

Frédéric Bonté, Veronika Cakova and Annelise Lobstein present a paper featuring some examples of European traditional uses of orchids as medicine, health food and even as skin care treatment.

There are some intriguing examples. In Roman medicine, the orchid-based aphrodisiacs drinks were called Satyrion but it seems that their properties were more due to the aromatics they contained.

In Europe until the Middle Ages, such as the Dr Vicat medicine treaty on Swiss pharmacopoeia, they are also sometimes described as having anti-pyretic and anti-diarrhoeal effects.

Later, in the north of Europe, some species of Dactylorhiza were described as having disinfectant, healing or diuretic qualities.

According to the French encyclopedia of Diderot and Alembert, the best preparation of the orchids is that of M. Geoffroy, described in a report of the French Academy of Science in1740. The dried bulbs, without skin, are thrown in cool water, are cooked then dried. Reduced thus, they were used as a drink to ease chest complaints. It was also considered a strengthening remedy for children and convalescents suitable “to repress the acridness of the lymph” and useful in the biliary phthisis and dysenteries.

The first phytochemical and pharmacological uses of purified extracts in skincare products arrive in the 20th century.

By Pamela Kelt

Monday, 23 December 2013

Darwin and the Christmas orchid

Recycling is a good thing. Here's another chance to read about Charles Darwin and a mysterious tale from the winter of 1862:

Mystery parcel
On a chilly morning in January 1862, an unsuspecting postman trudged up the drive to the house of Charles Darwin with a strange parcel.

Already in the early throes of orchid addiction, Darwin unwrapped a bundle of orchid specimens from Robert Bateman, which he’d requested for his ongoing research into insect pollination.

One plant was particularly intriguing: the Angraecum sesquipedale Thouars, a large Madagascar orchid with star-like flowers of ‘snow-white wax … and whip-like nectary of astonishing length’. Almost a foot, give or take an inch or two, as he discovered, when he set out to measure them. Darwin was hooked.
Darwin had first caught the bug in 1860. By July 1861, he took his wife and daughter Henrietta to Torquay while he diverted himself considering the many species of wild orchids to be on the shore.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Rare orchid find on tiny island

A rare species of orchid has been discovered on a remote Scottish island for the first time.

Irish ladies' tresses, which resembles plaited hair, only graces a few sites in the UK and Ireland, meaning the discovery of around 160 plants on Oronsay is a significant find.

Experts at RSPB Scotland, which manages a nature reserve there, believes the Spiranthes romanzoffiana orchids, which have a musky vanilla fragrance, were dormant underground awaiting amenable flowering conditions.

According to the press, volunteer Gill Watts, who found the orchids with her husband Richard, said: "We were actually surveying for marsh fritillary butterflies when we spotted all these white flowering spikes coming out of the ground. 

"We thought at first they might be a more common orchid, but after checking with the RSPB reserve manager, we managed to positively identify them.”

Ladies tresses, or Spiranthes, come in over 40 varieties, and are found in the Americas, Eurasia, and Australia. The genus name Spiranthes is derived from the Greek speira ("coil") and anthos ("flower"), and was inspired by the spirally arranged inflorescence.

Oronsay is a small tidal island south of Colonsay in the Scottish Inner Hebrides with an area of just over two square miles.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Lost orchid rediscovered

Orchid fans are buzzing with the news that one of the world’s rarest orchids has been rediscovered after 175 years.

Richard Bateman and Paula Rudall, from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, found the green-flowered plant on a wind-swept mountain ridge they compared to a scene from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World.

At first the team had focused on two kinds of butterfly-orchids, but by using morphology and DNA sequences, they were able to distinguish between the widespread short-spurred butterfly-orchid and the rarer narrow-lipped butterfly-orchid. It was only when the team surveyed an orchid population on top of a volcanic ridge on the central island of Sao Jorge that they made a surprising discovery: a third species.

On their return from the island of Sao Jorge in the Portuguese Azores to Britain the scientists realised that another botanist had first seen the orchid 175 years ago – but had never realised what he had discovered.

Browsing Kew Gardens archives, they realised that a German explorer, 20-year-old Karl Hochstetter, found the plant when he visited the Azores, 850 miles off the Portuguese coast, in 1838.

Hochstetter collected just one specimen and dried it before giving it to his father, the world-renowned botanist Christian Ferdinand Hochstetter. However, he misunderstood both the specimen and its significance, confusing the orchid with a closely related species. The father, a very experienced botanist, never visited the island, and so only saw the flattened specimen.

As a result, it disappeared from view – until now.

Wild for orchids

Orchid books can be pricey, but Wild Orchids of Regional WA is a DVD that might make a great present for the rellies.

West Australia is renowned for its wildflowers, and this product focuses on more than 200 orchids from the state, featuring native orchids, hybrids and bonuses.

The total running time is 82 minutes, and the contents account for two-fifths of all native orchids in the southern half of Western Australia.

Check it out here.

There are many Western Australian orchids yet to be filmed, so the makers have issued a list of the orchids they are hoping to document. If you can help us find these, please email: info@atoz-visual.com. All in confidence, of course.


NB: Don’t worry if the link looks odd, it worked last time I tried!

By Pamela Kelt

Friday, 6 December 2013

Tassie orchid ‘app’

With more than 320 detailed photographs, Orchids of Tasmania is a treasure for the orchidmaniac Down Under. But it’s not a book, it’s an ‘app’, so it’s ideal for techies - and most affordable at around £1.99 in the UK, for example.

It describes 184 of approximately 220 orchid species native to Tasmania, Australia, including 70 species particular to that state. With a description of the botany of each species along with the preferred habitat, main flowering period and confusing species the app assists in identifying both common as well as rarer species. A distribution map highlights where in Tasmania each species typically occurs while a search bar allows species to be located by either scientific or common name.

As an aid to identification orchids may also be browsed by genus as well as flower colour. Orchids listed as threatened at both the state and national level are highlighted with a link to relevant sites for further species information. A glossary as well as photographic descriptions provide information regarding orchid anatomy and reproduction.

The app, from William Higham, also has relevance to mainland Australia with 114, 94, 76 and 43 of the orchids represented being also found in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland.

Caption: the Caladenia carnea, or Pink Fingers, native to Tasmania